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Not Quite Friends

By Irish and Cami
Page 2 of 11

Avon became painfully aware that he had worked nearly through Vila's watch when the probe he held slipped off the contact plate and fused the entire circuit, ruining the probe and burning his fingers. He stared at the mess, pulled out the circuit and dumped it and the probe into the starboard disposal unit. He went to the small medical kit kept on the flight deck and sprayed his blistered fingers with a regen foam. The foam disappeared on contact, immediately stopped the pain and began healing, but now that Avon's concentration had been broken, he realized that his entire body was aching. Even before the battle he had been tired. Now he felt ill as well.

Avon sat down on the forward couch, unceremoniously dumping Vila's legs off the seat. The thief merely stopped snoring for a moment, rolled himself into a tight ball, and started up again. Avon looked at the glass of adrenaline and soma which had been left for him. If he drank that, he'd sleep for twelve hours. His eyes were trying to close now. Pushing himself to his feet, he paced the perimeter of the deck. There was still a great deal of work to be done, and Avon would have to do far too much of it himself.

Returning to his station, he scrolled through the damage report once more, mentally kicking himself for not realizing days ago that the flare shield assembly needed new crystals. Or that they had no spares on hand. If he hadn't been so utterly immersed in learning the identity of Anna's murderer, he might have been aware of the need well before the battle. What else was he missing? What else had Blake and Jenna used to do that now fell on his shoulders?

Remembering that Jenna had kept a maintenance log, Avon instructed Zen to prepare a complete regular maintenance schedule based on his former shipmate's references thereto in the log, cross-referencing Zen's own protocols regarding the matter. Zen advised him that Tarrant had already prepared such a schedule. Avon called it up at his station, scrolled through it, and nodded his satisfaction. Having a space command trained pilot aboard had its advantages, he supposed. However much Tarrant grated on Avon's nerves, he did know his job. It was hardly the boy's fault that he wasn't Blake.

Catching himself thinking that, Avon shot out of his chair, steadied himself against the console when the first attack of dizziness caught him, and cursed under his breath. Was that it? Was he deliberately punishing Tarrant for not being Blake? It wasn't as if he was unaware of Tarrant's attempts to mold the crew into an effective fighting unit. It wasn't even that he didn't think that was a good idea. He simply could not give Tarrant his head in the matter. Indeed, he found himself almost constitutionally incapable of passing up any opportunity to undercut his relationships with the others. As if the others belong to me, he wondered, and not to Tarrant? Avon hated being out of control of himself more than he hated being manipulated, and Tarrant somehow pushed him closer to his limit than anyone he'd ever met except Roj Blake. His survival instinct was warning him that he had better deal with this conflict before it cost him his head.

Just then Dayna arrived, a little less spring in her step than usual, and Avon hastily pulled himself together, rubbing his eyes with tender fingers, and promised himself he'd think about it later. He nodded formally to Dayna's acknowledgment of taking the watch, and clasped his hands behind him, forcing his spine to straighten as he walked off the flight deck. He hoped he could make it to his cabin before sleep overtook him.

#

Vila was shamelessly eavesdropping on Cally's conversation with Avon. He had leaned into the room far enough to see that Avon's head and shoulders were buried in the cowling of a damaged control subsystem that had been hit during the battle. Once hull integrity had been restored, Zen had gone on to other critical matters, so Avon was hurrying things along by manual repair wherever he felt it would do the most good.

Cally finished reciting the facts about Shastri Station, which she suggested as a place where they could both find flare shield crystals and take shore leave. The Station sounded a little dangerous to Vila, what with it being frequented by pirates and other sorts of outlaws. Probably bounty hunters, he thought. Still, she said there was a thriving dock area for those who wanted to indulge their baser appetites, as well as a more respectable city on the planet's surface, with theatres, museums, universities and upscale shopping areas.

Vila doubted he'd get beyond the docks of the orbital station. He nearly fell off his feet leaning sideways to hear Avon's answer. Then he nearly fell anyway, when Avon simply agreed and told her to set course for Shastri Station.

Stunned, Vila was still standing there when Cally left the control room. She jumped a little on seeing him, which, he thought, just went to show you that Cally wasn't feeling well either, or she'd have sensed that he was there. Her lips compressed to a thin line, but rather than snapping at him, she said, "How are you keeping, Vila?"

"He said yes," Vila blurted. "Didn't even argue."

With a crooked smile that was almost a grin, Cally said, "Of course he did. Avon is not an unreasonable man."

Vila made shushing motions, realizing he was in danger of being discovered and drafted for work. Too late. From inside the room, Avon's dry tones rasped, "Get in here, Vila. If you're well enough to eavesdrop, you're well enough to help."

Reluctantly, Vila made his way into the cramped room. Immediately, Avon said, "Get me a Brunner probe. I think it's in the third drawer to the left of the doorway." The probe was there, and Vila slapped it into Avon's waiting palm, wondering why the hand looked so pink. Irritated at having been caught, he decided to get some of his own back.

Casually, he asked, "So, what do you think of Tarrant? Think he's going to work out as our permanent pilot?"

After a moment, Avon said, "I think of Tarrant only when I must. This isn't working. Do you see the Heisenberg probe out there?"

Vila looked around, noticing for the first time the untidy heap of parts and tools. This really wasn't like Avon. Even in the middle of a battle he'd been known to put something away rather than leave it out, though if questioned he would say it was only to prevent it from hitting him on the head if the inertial dampers failed. Retrieving the Heisenberg probe, Vila considered handing Avon the wrong tool. Then he realized that in light of the nature of the Heisenberg, handing Avon the wrong one could really hurt the man. With a mental shrug he was too sick to make, Vila slapped the probe into the waiting hand. Without thinking about it, he started separating burned circuitry, stacking spares and lining up tools. Still, he thought, if I irritate him enough, he'll send me away. Brightly, he said, "That was some fancy flying yesterday, eh? Whatever else you say about him, the kid can fly this thing."

In a dangerously silken tone, Avon said, "Tell me, Vila, what is your opinion of our erstwhile ex-space command, ex-mercenary pilot?"

Before he could consider the answer, Vila said, "He's a bully and a snob. Well, so are you. A snob, not a bully. But he's a hell of a pilot."

Avon actually emerged from the cowling for his next comment. "Now tell me why everyone wants to talk about Tarrant today. I should like to go one full hour without thinking about the irritating child."

Distracted, Vila asked, "Was Cally talking about Tarrant? He's pretty sick, I think. His room's next to mine, and he didn't rest well."

"Be precise, Vila." This came in a flat, I'm-not-kidding-now, just-tell-me-the-facts tone, that Vila knew quite well.

He shrugged. "Well, he was--uh, retching all night. And when he did sleep, he kept waking up with nightmares. You're lucky your quarters are so far down the corridor. Like to give me heart failure."

Staring into the middle distance, Avon pondered that, unconsciously twirling a laser probe in that strangely pink hand. Finally, he focused on Vila again. "Thank you for cleaning up. Now go away, please, and let me work."

Avon didn't have to tell him twice. Rising too quickly, Vila nearly overbalanced, and found himself nose-to-nose with Avon, who was steadying him on his feet. "Go lie down. If I find you unconscious in a corridor, I shall leave you there, I promise."

Vila flushed slightly and muttered, "Don't worry, you won't find me." He resolved to stay clear of Avon until the latter was over his radiation sickness. Clearly, Avon ill was even worse than Avon well.

Tarrant studied his reflection, wishing he had some eyedrops. As bad as he felt, he'd be damned if he'd let on to the others. He'd take his medication and do his job. Except for those reddened eyes, he supposed he was as ready as he could be. He smoothed his tunic down and straightened his shoulders.

A brisk walk to the flight deck normally cleared early morning cobwebs from his brain. This time it only served to make him feel more tired.

Dayna was the only one in the room. She lounged on the couch, lightly fingering a musical instrument that she'd found in one of the storage holds.

"I'd say good morning," she said, "but it isn't."

Tarrant managed a small smile. "You'll feel better soon," he assured her. "Do you want to lie down? I could take over the watch."

"Thanks, but I can cope. It's not that strenuous. Avon prepared a list of chores, if anyone felt up to work."

"On his console?" Tarrant asked, stepping to check before Dayna replied.

"No. There's a printout...somewhere."

Tarrant only half heard her, staring hard at the chart on Avon's monitor. It was part of the maintenance schedule he'd prepared. What in the hell was it doing here? Was Avon spying on him?

"Here it is." Dayna's voice was accompanied by the rustling of paper.

Frowning, Tarrant cleared Avon's screen, then marched down to collect the printout from Dayna. After a quick scan of the list, he determined that the dispensers in the Rest Room required immediate attention. The delivery tubes needed flushed out a second time before they could be used to transfer the uncontaminated food and water from the shielded storage area.

But before he did that....

"Do you know where Avon is?" he asked.

She pondered the question a moment before answering. "Not really. He's immersed in repair work, and apparently not in a very good mood. Vila wandered by a little while ago, mumbling something about hiding from Avon until we reached Shastri Station."

"Shastri Station?"

"You haven't heard? We're going there for rest, and to get those crystals that you've been going on about. Cally made the course change hours ago."

"I think I'd better talk to Avon," Tarrant decided. "You never said where he was."

Dayna sighed deeply. "Not this again. Leave him alone. Put your energies to use elsewhere."

"Never mind." Tarrant crumpled the computer printout into a ball and threw it at her. "I'll find him myself."

Tarrant stalked through the corridors, anger burning a sharp path up his spine. Naturally, he was the last to know of their plans. He was only the pilot, not someone who need be consulted or informed. No one had considered that he might have personal knowledge about Shastri Station.

Or was it that they didn't trust anything he had to say anyway, after Keezarn?

And why did Avon have Tarrant's report displayed on his monitor?

The two of them had to learn to communicate, even if it killed them. Moving to confront Avon, Tarrant wouldn't have placed a bet against that fatal possibility. A Targan warg strangler's den was probably safer than a cornered Avon.

From the work list, Tarrant had two or three good ideas concerning Avon's whereabouts. He found him on his second try.

Avon was seated on the control room floor beside the exposed innards of one of the subsystems. His eyes were closed hollows; his skin pale and clammy.

Concern for a member of his crew took precedence over Tarrant's irritation. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

Avon's eyes popped open, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment flitting across his face. "That's a stupid question, even for you." With obvious effort, he struggled to his feet.

Tarrant didn't miss that Avon kept his hand on the wall for support. Nor that the flesh of that hand had the unnatural flush of a recent burn.

"Maybe you should take a break," he said.

"The only break I need is one from you. If you came here simply to aggravate me, you have succeeded. Now get out. I have work to do."

"You can't do it very efficiently dead on your feet," Tarrant persisted. He stared pointedly at Avon's injured hand. "Exhaustion can lead to accidents."

Avon reached into a drawer and pulled free a laser cutter. He waved it menacingly in the air. "Then you will probably want to leave before I turn this on."

Tarrant backed out of the room, upset with Avon, more upset with himself. He'd handled that badly. A good leader would have been able to convince Avon to rest. He'd failed at that, and hadn't even touched on the purpose of his visit, discussing the harsher aspects of Shastri Station.

Inexplicably, Tarrant felt a sudden urge to cry. It was ridiculous. He hadn't cried since he was a small child, when Deeta had unintentionally broken one of his toys. He hadn't even thought about crying since that first, lonely night at Space Academy.

It was because he was ill, he decided. He'd detour to the med unit and get something for his nausea before he set to work. If he didn't start keeping something down, he'd end up dehydrated on top of everything else.

Cally stood at the top of the stairs, watching the exchange between Dayna and Vila.

"I'm not hungry," Dayna said, shooing Vila away.

"But you have to eat to keep your strength up," he insisted. "I know."

"How do you know?"

"We had a touch of excess radiation a couple of times before, and we didn't have any decontaminant drugs that first time. Blake found some, though. I thought I could trust Blake to manage that. Most of the time you could trust Blake, except for two or three times when you couldn't." He met her eyes, smiling. "Now what's your answer?"

Dayna laughed. "Vila, I've forgotten the question."

"Do you want to have lunch with me?"

"I think it is a good idea," Cally said, taking the steps very carefully. She was almost certain that Vila's babbling had been deliberate, an effort to cheer Dayna, and she approved.

"I will then," Dayna said, her eyes momentarily twinkling to their old brightness, "if you join us, Cally. I need a chaperon."

Cally thought briefly of refusing. There was so much work to be done. But Vila was right; they needed nourishment.

"Cally?"

"I'll come," she said, wishing she hadn't bothered to descend the flight stairs. "Zen, take over the watch. Contact us in the Rest Room if anything requires attention."

"Confirmed."

Dayna fell into step beside Cally. "How long was it before you felt better last time?"

"I wasn't exposed to the radiation the first time. It was Avon, Vila, and...some of the others. The second time, I was exposed for a much shorter duration than the others."

"I was ill for weeks," Vila said from behind them. "Not that anyone believed me. Blake put me back to work as soon as the med computer gave the okay. What does it know? It wasn't designed to treat humans. Cally, do you think I could have some adrenaline and soma with lunch?"

"I don't know," she teased. "It was that untrustworthy medical computer that prescribed the treatment."

"We have to give it a chance," Vila hurried out. "It is the only doctor on board."

"Then we'd best stop by medical and pick some up."

That errand accomplished, they continued on to the Rest Room. Cally was crossing its threshold when she remembered, "We won't be able to use the dispensers here."

"Yes, you will," Tarrant's voice called from the far corner. "I've just finished with the wash." He consulted a small counter in his hand. "The radiation level is well within safe limits, even considering the effects of cumulative exposure."

"Thank you, Tarrant," Cally said. "I don't think any of us were up to a trip to the inner holds to get food."

"Well...you're welcome." He averted his eyes, turning his attention to recoiling a length of hose.

"My treat, Dayna," Vila said, giving Tarrant a wide berth as he walked to the selector buttons. "What will it be?"

"I don't know," she sighed. "Nothing appeals to me."

"Then it will be chef's surprise." Vila's fingers tripped across a series of keys. "For two."

Dayna giggled and sat at the dining table. Cally settled tiredly beside her, barely resisting the urge to lower her head onto the flat surface. She thought she must have nodded off for a moment because in the blink of an eye Vila was placing two plates on the table.

"What would you like, Cally?" he asked.

"Nothing right now."

Vila placed his hands on his hips and assumed a stern pose. "If you don't eat, I'm going to have to spoon feed you."

"All right, but I'll get it myself." She decided on simple broth, and quickly keyed in a request. "Avon's the one who probably needs feeding. He often forgets to eat in the best of times."

"Remind him later," Vila said, "after I'm finished." He faced Dayna as Cally returned to the table. "Did anyone ever tell you about our trip to Varga Minor? That was one time Avon didn't forget to eat. Blake sent the two of us to contact a local resistance leader. We were to meet in a high-class restaurant. Well, the man was late. Hours late. In the meantime, Avon..."

Vila launched into a tale that Cally guessed would be equal parts truth and exaggeration. She didn't have the energy to listen. It took all of her strength to sip the broth and hold her thumping head erect.

She almost fell asleep sitting up again, but a clattering snapped her to full awareness.

"Careful with those tools," Vila was warning Tarrant, "or Avon will ship you to Cygnus Alpha."

"It's not damaged." The pilot placed the last one back in the carry case and stood.

He might have swayed slightly before gaining his balance. Cally wasn't sure. She didn't entirely trust her exhaustion-blurred eyes. But it reminded her to ask, "Tarrant, have you been following the medication schedule I laid out?"

"Yes." He started for the door.

"How are you...?" Tarrant disappeared from sight before she could finish her question.

"Oh." Cally rubbed at her temples, the room suddenly swirling about her.

"Are you going to faint?" Vila squeaked while scrambling out of his chair.

"No. But I do need to rest. There's so much to do."

"There's no rush," Dayna said. "Vila, help her to her cabin."

"I will."

Cally felt his supporting arms go about her, gently urging her to her feet. "I should be running daily scans on everyone."

"We're all adults," Vila said. "We don't need you clucking over us. An adrenaline and soma is all I need to set me to rights. Did I tell you about that first time when we were sick from radiation? It was when you and Blake were on Aristo. I was all set to...."

A whirring noise penetrated Avon's sleep, continuing insistently until he could no longer ignore it. Eyes still closed, he groped with his right hand to extinguish the wake alarm.

He dragged his body through its morning ritual. He showered, shaved, and dressed mechanically while his mind reviewed the information he had on Shastri. His first priority was securing the crystals. He would manage that himself while the others recuperated. Not that they could let down their guards. No place was entirely safe, and he intended to caution them to that effect.

Despite his languid pace, he was still the first member of the crew to reach the flight deck. Cally arrived ten minutes later, shortly after he had completed a routine exchange with Zen on the status of the ship.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Better for having slept. I think you were wise to turn the watch over to Zen. The side effects are even more debilitating than I had imagined. We are going to need the opportunity to relax on Shastri."

"This trip isn't entirely recreational," he reminded her.

"I hope that doesn't mean work," Vila said, thumping down the stairs, Dayna behind him. Vila's hair was mussed and he was fastening the buttons on his shirt. "I'm not up to work."

"You never are," Dayna teased. Then her face grew serious, "But I'll have to admit that I agree with you this time. I still feel drained."

Cally gave her a quick visual inspection. "After Avon's meeting, we'll go to medical and I'll run a scan."

"I don't feel that badly," the young girl said. "About the same as yesterday."

"Better to be safe." Cally's eyes roamed over Avon and Vila. "How are you both?"

"Don't ask," Vila moaned. "I'd rather not think about it."

"I'm fine." Avon tapped impatiently at his console. "Where is Tarrant? Has anyone seen him?" The women shook their heads.

"He was in his cabin earlier," Vila said. "But I haven't heard anything from there recently."

"Did he know about the meeting?" Cally asked.

"I routed the message to his console as I did with the rest of you."

"I never saw that," Dayna admitted. "I wouldn't have known if Cally hadn't told me."

Sure enough, when Avon checked the pilot position, the green message light was still blinking. "If only he were half as efficient as he pretends," he noted with irritation.

"I'll call him." Cally reached for the intraship communicator controls.

"Try," Avon said, "but he won't hear you if he's in his room. I haven't finished replacing the damaged relays. The ones that serve the sleep wing are still inoperational."

There was no response to Cally's summons. Avon sighed tiredly, resigned to making the long jaunt to Tarrant's cabin himself.

Cally started to stand. "I could..."

"No. I'll fetch him."

"Don't be too rough on him," Vila said, then squirmed slightly when three sets of surprised eyes were directed his way. "Well...you know...murdering our one and only pilot might not be a good idea."

With Vila's admonition still on his mind, Avon rapped lightly at Tarrant's door. "Tarrant," he called, "are you in there?" When there was no answer, he pulled his fist back to sharpen his knock, but instead found his palm going to the entry plate. To his surprise, the door slid open. He would have expected it to be locked to anyone except the room's occupant. His certainly was.

Tarrant was sprawled prone on the bed, fully clothed, including his boots. Tiptoeing closer, Avon judged him to be deeply asleep. There was a basin that contained a small puddle of sour-smelling liquid resting on a table next to the bunk.

Avon felt his uncertain stomach balk at the smell, but he forced his feet to the table anyway and plucked a wrinkled computer printout from its surface. It was the list of repair jobs that he had prepared. Several of them were crossed out. Others had checks beside them.

He guessed the marks indicated which jobs were completed and which ones Tarrant intended to tackle next. Though Avon, in general, approved of the pilot's choices, he cringed when he saw that a computer project--correction, a critical computer project--was one of the items checked. He pictured Tarrant pawing over the fragile helix core interface which linked Zen to the battle computers and went cold. He wasn't allowing untrained hands anywhere near that delicate circuitry. It was just as well that Avon was ordering everyone off the ship when they reached Shastri.

Tarrant shuddered in his sleep, reminding Avon of where he was. He quietly padded from the room. His briefing on their plans might actually go more smoothly without Tarrant's irksome presence. He'd let the young man rest and fill him in later.

#


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